St. Mary-le-Bow Church, London

True Cockneys are born within earshot of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow church in Cheapside.

What is a Cockney, anyway?

Apart from being someone born in London within earshot of the bells, the term Cockney has become associated with working class Londoners. According to the Telegraph, the bells used to be heard in North and East London and as far south as Southwark. Nowadays, traffic noise has reduced that span. Does it mean that there are fewer Cockneys born every year? Strictly speaking, yes, but I think the Cockney spirit is more cultural than geographical.

Something else that is dwindling is the use of the rhyming slang. A survey cited by the Telegraph has shown that the Cockney dialect is slowly disappearing due to the influence of the different cultures and languages that coexist in London. Researchers found that 80% of Londoners do not understand it.

I was baffled beyond words the first few times my dear husband used rhyming slang for a laugh. I’ve learned a few phrases since then and sometimes even use them myself. My favorites are me old china, cream crackered and donkey’s ears. Can you guess what they mean?

St Mary le Bow 1

The 12 bells of St. Mary-le-Bow

I’ll spare you the technical details but let me tell you that they ring every 15 minutes. The first record of their use dates back to 1469, when they rang at 9 pm to signal the start of the curfew and the end of the working day (at least for apprentices.) I listened to the bells sitting on a bench under the statue of John Smith, he of Jamestown and Pocahontas fame. Captain Smith was a parishioner of this church before leaving for his adventures in the New World. The statue and bench sit on what used to the churchyard, although you wouldn’t really know because it’s covered in concrete.

The crypt

The crypt has 3 aisles and it groin vaults are supported by six columns. Four arches pierce the spine walls. The crypt house a café called Café Below. Unfortunately, I was unable to see the crypt because the café was closed at the time of my visit.

Why is it called St. Mary-le-Bow?

First of all, the name has nothing to do with bow and arrows or archery. The name of the church comes from the arches in the crypt. It evolved from the medieval St. Marie de Arcubus (Latin) to St. Marie des Arches to St. Marie-atte-Bowe in the 14th and 15th centuries to current St. Mary-le-Bow in use since the 17th century.

A potted history

A church was founded in the late 11th century in Cheapside (meaning market place in Old English). It survived 3 collapses before being destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Sir Christopher Wren designed a new building to replace the ruins but his, in turn, was flattened by a bomb in 1941. Nothing daunted, Londoners reconstructed the church once more and had it re-consecrated in 1964.

The nave is filled with natural light coming in from its many windows and is reflected by the white walls and sky blue ceiling. The effect is calming and uplifting. It provides a place for quiet reflection in the hustle and bustle of the City of London.

6 thoughts on “St. Mary-le-Bow Church, London

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